Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Sarah Graham-Brown, Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999).
Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).
Scott Ritter, Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem Once and For All (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).
Tim Trevan, Saddam’s Secrets: The Hunt for Iraq’s Hidden Weapons (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).

Having built up Iraq in the 1980s, the US and its allies were hard pressed to put their wayward genie back in the bottle following Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and its implicit threat to Western access to oil. This involved a delicate balancing act, as many feared that Iraq’s disintegration might seriously threaten the free flow of oil. Iraq’s wings had to be clipped to prevent any more foreign adventures, but its claws had to remain intact so that the regime could maintain a tight grip on its domestic situation. Hence UN Security Council Resolutions 687 and 688. With UNSC 687 the international community gave itself far-reaching powers to monitor and eliminate Iraq’s capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD). By contrast, UNSC 688, which censured the regime for crushing its own population in the wake of rebellions in the north and south, lacked an enforcement mechanism.

Consistent with this approach, the US has pursued a “palace coup” option rather than a popular revolt whose results would be hard to predict or control. A revolt could lead to a Shi‘i takeover and, it is feared, undue Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs. Unlike the Kurds (who entertain no aspirations to central power), Iraq’s majority Shi‘a did not receive safe haven protection, while the Kurds received only protection, not the material support that might have enabled them to forge a true autonomy or — perish the thought — to secede. The minimal support granted to the Kurds nevertheless irked Turkey, which has a restless Kurdish population of its own. The US pacified its Turkish ally by closing its eyes to both systematic sanctions busting (oil has been trucked across the border daily for years) and army atrocities (many committed with US weaponry) in Turkey’s southeastern provinces.

Nine years later, Iraq’s ability to mount external aggression has been severely circumscribed, but the most intrusive disarmament regime in history, led by UNSCOM, died an untimely death in 1998. Saddam Hussein remains in power and US policy in Iraq has reached an impasse. The evolving policy toward Iraq — and its consequences — are described in four new books, all of which make for excellent reading. The most thorough of these is Sarah Graham-Brown’s brilliant dissection of allied policy as it has affected ordinary Iraqis. Nuanced, balanced and extremely well-sourced, it explains how “humanitarian” intervention (under UNSC 688) was launched as “an afterthought to war,” only to become “a substitute for a political solution” after 1991. Graham-Brown shows how sanctions, first imposed to forestall the need for war, soon became linked to Iraq’s full compliance with Security Council resolutions, eventually becoming (at US bidding) a “generalized strategy of control” with no guaranteed relief short of a radical change in Iraq’s leadership. This book should top the list of any student of US policy in the modern Middle East.

Saddam Hussein as the irrepressible neighborhood bully, and the bumbling US attempt to knock him down, are the themes of the Cockburn brothers’ book. Seasoned journalists, they present an engaging narrative based on interviews with Iraqi exiles and their own observations in Washington and Baghdad. Unfortunately, several important pieces of information remain unsourced and the authors seem to take high-level Iraqi defectors’ words at face value. Like many journalists, the Cockburns quote people as if they had been in on their conversation, which they were not. Still, it is difficult to quibble with the Cockburns’ overall conclusions. They provide enlightening descriptions of key events at the heart of the regime, the spectacular failure of the US-sponsored opposition and the attempted assassination of Saddam’s son Uday. The Clinton administration’s strong preference for a palace coup is well documented here. The Cockburns quote one White House official as saying: “Our policy is to get rid of Saddam, not his regime.” They offer the following appraisal of the allies’ decision not to push toward Baghdad in February 1991 or to support the ensuing popular uprisings: “No one wanted to encourage democracy in Iraq. It might prove catching. It had been a conservative war to keep the Middle East as it was, not to introduce change.”

In the midst of these battles stands — and then falls — Scott Ritter, UNSCOM’s chief inspector in its final years. His book is an apologia, though not a very effective one (and he errs egregiously on facts concerning the 1980s, in addition to clumsily attempting to trace Iraq’s modern history to Saddam’s tribal roots). By defending his own method of inspections — going after Saddam’s “concealment mechanism,” rather than his weapons capability — Ritter deprives the reader of his juiciest accusations (that the US used UNSCOM to eavesdrop on the Iraqi leader and was running its own agents through the inspection agency, which facilitated US targeting of Saddam’s inner circle during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998), perhaps reckoning that these accusations had received sufficient attention during his tour of the US talk show circuit following his August 1998 resignation.

Scott Ritter became the darling of the GOP. They viewed him as the tough warrior who, by breaking down the concealment mechanism, or at least by precipitating US bombing every time Iraq rejected an UNSCOM request to inspect a “sensitive” site, could bring Saddam to his knees, never mind if, in so doing, he overstepped UNSCOM’s mandate. Ironically, the GOP skewered Clinton’s wavering approach to Iraq even as the White House was infiltrating UNSCOM to get directly at Saddam and his entourage. The GOP also had a special disdain for Annan, whom they saw as soft on Saddam. Yet as Graham-Brown notes with trademark acuity, Annan’s mission to Baghdad in the spring of 1998 “only expressed the collective will of the Security Council to the extent that they could not agree to do anything else.” The US was out on a limb; it lacked the support of just about anybody else on the Security Council, with the exception of Great Britain. Frustrated with Clinton’s doddering, the Republicans in Congress threw money at the Iraqi opposition, knowing full well that this was no substitute for policy since the opposition lacks support inside Iraq. In the end, the GOP feared a popular Iraqi revolt and its possible consequences just as much as the Clintonites did.

It is one of the great ironies of the allied forces’ evolving Iraq policy that the interests of Saddam Hussein and Scott Ritter ultimately began to converge — although Ritter’s book shows that while Saddam was pulling the strings, Ritter remained utterly clueless as to his machinations. The Cockburns describe Ritter’s downfall well. By the end of 1997, UNSCOM, rather than being a threat to Saddam, “had turned into an advantage. [The Iraqi leader] now had the initiative because he could provoke a confrontation any time he chose, simply by refusing to cooperate. In pursuing this strategy, Saddam had an unlikely ally:… Scott Ritter…. The realization that the power to provoke crises appeared to rest in the hands of President Saddam Hussein and Maj. Scott Ritter had by this time dawned on the Clinton administration.” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright then put pressure on the head of UNSCOM, Richard Butler, to rein in his chief inspector, which finally led to Ritter’s resignation.

In his polemical response to his effective dismissal from the UN inspection agency, Ritter posits, with justification, that the Clintonites were loath to provoke Iraq because they lacked “any discernible vision or endgame.” To Ritter, Butler was Clinton’s pawn, even if he does not spell that out. (Butler responded with an apologia of his own in the September 1999 issue of Talk magazine, accusing Ritter of having “misrepresented facts and reconstructed events, conversations, and decisions in which he had played no part.” True though this may be, Butler’s own defense is a laughable screed: He blames everyone for UNSCOM’s demise — Ritter for alleging US subversion of UNSCOM; Russia’s then-Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov for doing Saddam’s bidding and “getting personal payments from Iraq”; Saddam Hussein, whom he describes “metaphorically” as “a large cockroach,” just for being there; but most of all, Kofi Annan for his “tendency to sacrifice substance to his notion of diplomacy” — except himself or the Clinton administration, which, for all practical purposes, he came to serve.)

Ritter is right about the lack of an endgame. And credit is due to the dashing arms inspector for offering an exit strategy of his own. Unfortunately, his plan (no more bombing, no more sanctions, and the creation of an Iraqi Marshall Plan in exchange for concessions by Iraq on all those points on which Saddam has so far refused to budge an inch), is unrealistic and must astound those who supported Ritter’s UNSCOM methodology. Let’s now do business with Saddam!, he seems to propose. While doing so is “certainly not an attractive idea, when contrasted with the unspeakable horrors of war, or the mindless and morally corrupt policy of indefinite economic sanctions, it does represent a lesser evil.” It appears that Ritter, having lost his battle against Clinton policy, is now seeking new allies among those who also oppose this policy for different reasons. It is hard to take him seriously.

For a more credible and comprehensive personal account of the UNSCOM experience, the reader should turn to Tim Trevan’s detailed diary of events beginning in February 1992 when UNSCOM’s first executive chairman, Rolf Ekeus, enlisted him as his special adviser, or “conceptual thinker,” and press relations officer. The book is particularly fascinating in describing UNSCOM’s painstaking methodology for ferreting out Saddam’s WMD through the labyrinth of lies, deceptions and evasions that the Iraqis never tired of fashioning. But Trevan does not seek to answer the larger political questions, nor does he offer any solutions. He merely laments that “[w]hile there have been hints of supporting efforts to remove Saddam’s regime, the US and its closest allies appear to be bent on a strategy of containment, regardless of the evidence that such strategies always ultimately fail.”

When all is said and done, crippling sanctions continue to take the lives of countless innocent Iraqis and the genie remains at large. As a sheepish George Bush memorably noted in 1991, “We have Saddam Hussein still here.” In 1999, Saddam Hussein is still among us, though not by luck or derring-do on his part. With dead-on precision, Sarah Graham-Brown observes: “US officials frequently talk of keeping Saddam Hussein in a box, but in many respects they have fashioned a box for themselves in pursuit of this policy.” As she and the Cockburns show, the ill-conceived policies that first unleashed the Iraqi tyrant and then sought to re-confine him are the very same policies that now preclude any quick fix, or indeed any solution, short of Saddam Hussein’s undoubtedly violent death and the mayhem that will surely follow.

How to cite this article:

Joost Hiltermann "Clipped Wings, Sharp Claws," Middle East Report 212 (Fall 1999).
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